Stephen Layton and Polyphony have a long and fruitful relationship with the music of Arvo Pärt. Their recording of Triodion and other choral works (CDA67375) won a Gramophone Award and became a cult classic. The extraordinary purity of Polyphony’s singing is the perfect vehicle for music of such clean, elemental simplicity, such cathartic calm. This third Pärt album from Stephen Layton and Polyphony reaches right back, intriguingly, to the composer’s youthful modernist phase and spans nearly five decades—from 1963 to 2012—in the process. As with the album Triodion, it reflects an increasingly broad spread of languages and sources in Pärt’s chosen texts. Latin, German and English are joined here by Church Slavonic and Spanish. A range of biblical texts are set alongside ancient prayers.
As the title and subtitle imply, this is a kind of greatest-hits album, with music selected by ECM label producer Manfred Eicher from the 12 albums on the label devoted to the music of Arvo Pärt. Pärt's music is so malleable that people tend to make their own versions of it rather than collect it, but if you wanted an anthology as a starter box, this would be the one to choose. Eicher has worked closely with Pärt since the 1980s, and he has indeed made a sensible "sequence" out of works that do not have a lot of contrast among them.
Boris Yoffee was born in Russia in 1968. There, he studied violin and composition and before the breakup of the Soviet Union he immigrated to Israel, where he studied at Tel Aviv University. In 1997, he moved to Germany to study composition with Wolfgang Rihm. By 2009, he had amassed an enormous number of short works. Thus, the performers who had been asked to record his Song of Songs looked through approximately 800 of them in order to select the pieces they wanted to perform. The Rosamunde Quartet is a German string quartet that was formed in 1992; since the group disbanded in 2010, this is its last recording. The Hilliard Ensemble is a British male vocal quartet that is well known for its performance of Renaissance, medieval, and contemporary music. It has often performed the works of Arvo Pärt, whose music is somewhat similar to that of Yoffe.
The symphonies of Arvo Pärt will surprise anyone familiar with his contemplative, mature style. Pärt began life as a member of the Eastern European modern school, not so far removed from contemporaries such as Penderecki and Górecki. His three symphonies show his gradual renunciation of the more radical aspects of his musical syntax, a return to emotional directness, and the beginnings of that otherworldly quality that has become the outstanding feature of his later work. Not all listeners have traveled the path with him, some finding his recent music tedious and pretentious rather than spiritual, and these three relatively early symphonies really do add a welcome depth and roundness of profile to a composer who can all too easily seem one-dimensional. It's important to keep in mind that, unlike so many members of today's pseudospiritual school of composers (England's John Tavener being the prime example), Pärt is a real composer operating even in the most mystical musings. Järvi deserves real credit for calling attention to this fact in such a powerful way.